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The Webcomic Overlook #80: Set To Sea

I mentioned Drew Weing on this blog before. I gushed over his work on the somewhat experimental “Pup” (reviewed here). I was enamored by how he pushed the boundaries of the internet browser to augment the themes of his individual strips. You might say that he put the “can” in “infinite canvas”! (Groan. That’s right, I groaned preemptively for you.)

However, I understand if those strips come off as a bit gimmicky. Being goofy with the medium does not mean it’s any good, right? Rest assured, though, Mr. Weing’s traditional artistics skills are, in fact, mad and crunk. Perhaps even fly. They’re reason enough to give his webcomics a good look. Today, on The Webcomic Overlook, let’s check out one of his more standard comics: the more conventionally paced (yet still novel) Set To Sea.

I mean, it’s a story of a soulful giant and his adventures on a rickety sailing vessel. What’s not to like? Plus, you might want to stick around later as I get my techie on to ask another question: how do webcomics look on the small screen, e.g. the iPod Touch and the Samsung Glide? Go on and feel free to persecute me for my lack of technical knowledge!

The plot of Set To Sea is very simple, almost as if it were a bedtime story aimed at children. A big lummox falls asleep at the local tavern. Unable to pay his tab, he offers instead, like a literary Wimpy from those Popeye comics, to insert the persona of the tavern keeper in verse. He’s a poet, you see. The value of immortality through sonnet must not match the market value of alcohol, for our big guy — yet unnamed — soon finds his big caboose out on the street. Penniless, the guy sits himself on the docks and falls asleep while editing his latest masterpiece. (Man, haven’t we all been there? Falling asleep on the dock while writing a blog entry is probably why my left bicep sports a “Webcomics 4 Eva” tattoo. I mean, who the hell is Eva?)

Our hero suddenly gets shanghaied in the original sense of the word. Before you can say “slow boat to China,” he gets clubbed on the head and forced to work menial labor on a ship headed to the Far East. Despite being bigger than an ox, our brute finds himself ill-equipped to handle the rigors of life on the open seas. He mopes around a lot, develops unsightly lumps on his fingers, and is generally an annoyance to his shipmates. He may, however, be forced to use all the muscles in his gigantic frame, for his ship — whether he wants to be on it or not — soon becomes the target of bloodthirsty pirates.

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It’s basic maritime adventure stuff … the sort of story that’s been thrilling kids since C.S. Forester introduced us to the exciting adventures of Horatio Hornblower and Herman Melville wrote about that one guy who just wouldn’t let go of a great white metaphor for mid-life crisis. Incidentally, are high seas adventure stories still relevant? We’re living in an era where we can view any corning of the world with a simple mouse click. The mysteries of other cultures have been broken down by webcams, image searches, and Anthony Bourdain. Yet I imagine our innate sense of wonder causes us to still thrill at tales of alienation. The arrival at Hong Kong had me wondering about the new sights, sounds, and smells of street-vendor noodle shops that the crew encountered when they set foot on the dock.

And when you’ve got someone who can draw as well as Drew Weing, visualizing and absorbing the experience is a whole lot easier. The most wonderful aspect of Set To Sea is Mr. Weing’s beautiful black-and-white artwork. The dialogue is sparse, placing the illustrations front and center. And there is a lot to love. The classic character designs that have been tweaked just a little that the words “out-of-date” never cross your mind. The sadness on the big guy’s face (which sorta looks like a blobfish) that overpowers the imposing facade of his bulky frame. The incredible amount of detail that goes into every panel. Reading Set To Sea is like watching a master craftsman at work.

The story progresses a single panel at a time. “Well, then,” you say, “that’s no comic. A comic means that there’s sequential art! Multiple panels! This is comic art, not a comic blah blah blah.” Now hold it right there, Scott McCloud! No need to get your flannels and stylish Zot! t-shirt in a tizzy. I think we can make an exception to the rule here. It’s sequential in the sense that the very next panel is a continuation of the previous one, thus establishing a narrative.

Not that I ever agreed with Mr. McCloud’s definition. I think you could argue quite easily that every single panel of Set To Sea tells a complete, fully formed story. Multiple panels don’t have a monopoly on effective storytelling, McCloud!

Anyway, time to move on to part two of this review. The single panel format brings to question a little asked question which struck me the moment I saw the minimalist trappings of Set To Sea: how does this webcomic look on a mobile device?

To put it in an overly labored metaphor, technology is a turbulent and powerful River of Change, forever setting new courses and stranding slow-moving Content Riverboats on the unforgiving Sandbars of Obsolescence. Ten years ago, everyone was excited about desktops. Nowadays, according to Consumer Reports, laptops are currently outselling desktops for the first time ever. And it doesn’t stop there. Laptops are getting smaller and smaller, and some economic analysts are predicting that even those will eventually be replaced by smart phones: those handy combo phone/web browsers/portable gaming devices that are currently fun little status symbols but will probably replace your standard-grade fliptop cellphones.

00010188I recall an episode of Webcomics Weekly (and, man, those guys should really change that name) where the hosts were discussing mobile devices. It was Scott Kurtz, I believe, who theorized that they didn’t need to do anything, since — the way mobile devices were evolving — cellphones and PDAs or whatever would morph to accommodate the website format, not the other way around. He may be right in the long run. However, the “now” is not so promising. I pulled up Penny Arcade on the iPod Touch not too long ago (since it will be a cold day in hell before we switch services to Cingular just so we can get the iPhone). Result? Considerable eye strain to read the tiny text in those gosh-darned minuscule word balloons. I had to zoom in and scroll, which made reading the comic an unwieldy experience. And Penny Arcade, being a simple three panel strip, should be the most smart phone friendly!

It gets worse on my “stupid” phone, a Samsung Glide. It’s the sort of phone where you either have to access a website’s mobile menu, or the browser — run on some version of Opera — is a totally useless waste of memory. Stupid phone won’t let me even zoom close enough to read the text. I curse thee and thy offspring, Samsung Glide!

So how does Set to Sea look on the iPod Touch? Absolutely fantastic. The screen, unfortunately, didn’t automatically zoom to the proportions of the panel, which means that ever page, you have to do the double-tap dance to get the panel to fill the screen. However, the art looks great. Thanks to the advent of anti-aliasing, we can make out the intricacies of Mr. Weing’s inks, picking up the tiny details on his ships to crowded scenes where it seems like fifty characters were drawn onto a single page. Long live anti-aliasing!

It’s a little bit trickier on the Glide. Unlike the the iPod Touch, you can’t rotate the browser orientation. The comic panels are longer vertically than horizontally and the Glide’s screen the opposite of that. Plus, no anti-aliasing, so zooming out kills the artwork in a blurry mess of pixels. Still, it looks fine when the picture loads in full. You just have get used to scrolling down the page. (Admittedly, this is a drawback. Set to Sea is best when the panels are enjoyed in full.) Added plus: when word balloons do show up, it’s very easy to read.

So, in the end, whether you’re browsing comics on your desktop, your laptop, your smart phone, or your stupid phone, check out the adventures of our nameless poet in Set To Sea. It’s a quick read. It’s a fun read. It’s one of the best webcomics out there.

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